OTA pushes for more government focus on organics

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Organic agriculture, Organic food

The US Organic Trade Association today released an ambitious plan
designed to advance the nation's organic agriculture by petitioning
the government to support an increased local, regional and national
supply of organic food and fiber.

The proposal, which involves incorporating organic provisions in the 2007 Farm Bill, aims to obtain equal benefits for organic farmers from USDA programs as are currently received by conventional farmers.

"Although retail sales of organic products now total $15 billion annually, the industry and its organic agriculture base need to keep up with growing consumer demand and overcome hurdles that face organic producers. Currently, the sector receives only a tiny fraction of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) budget,"​ said the Organic Trade Association (OTA) in a statement today.

According to the OTA's 2006 Manufacturer Survey, organic products currently make up 2.5 percent of all retail sales of food. The overall food organic market grew 28 percent since 2003 to reach a total value of $14bn in 2005, and is expected to reach $16bn by the end of 2006.

Yet despite the steady growth of the market in the past decade, one obstacle that still remains is the lack of adequate supply. The sectors hardest hit by supply shortages are the organic orange juice, meat and dairy sectors.

And the OTA views the 2007 Farm Bill as the key legislation that can influence organic agriculture and trade for years to come.

Regulated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and renewed every five to six years, farm bills are a collection of laws that set the overall direction of the nation's agriculture.

The legislation set out in a farm bill aims to provide a safe and affordable supply of food through programs that promote US agriculture. The bills typically contain provisions for commodity prices, agricultural trade and crop insurance, amongst others.

"In many cases, organic is not receiving a fair share of current dollars appropriated for research, for conservation, for risk management - all current programs that benefit other aspects of agriculture,"​ said Caren Wilcox, executive director of OTA, adding that the association is now asking Congress for "equality" for organic farmers.

For example, according to the OTA, there currently is little federal data or market research available about organic farms.

"Our farmers need access to the same resources USDA provides to conventional farmers - research, market data, risk management tools, and import/export information.

When conventional farmers decide what to plant for the upcoming season, they have reams of cost, production and market data to influence their actions. Organic farmers have none of these critical resources. As a result, they farm at a distinct disadvantage,"​ said Wilcox.

OTA's recommendations to Congress focus on four objectives, which it believes can lead to the accomplishment of these goals.

Its first proposal is for Congress to provide the USDA with funds to foster transition to organic agriculture and trade by providing technical assistance to aid in the conversion of farmland from conventional to organic.

OTA also suggests that hurdles to organic agriculture and trade should be eliminated by creating appropriate risk management tools and developing an organic export policy and strategy.

A third recommendation would have the USDA initiate and fund organic agriculture and economic research. This, said OTA, is important as privately funded research is limited, and there is much to be learned about the fundamentals of organic production.

Finally, OTA recommends the maintenance and enhancement of current agency programs so that the National Organic Program (NOP) and other parts of USDA can keep pace with the growing organic sector. Credibility of the organic standard is critical to organic farmers, handlers, and all others in the organic trade, and that credibility is tied to the capabilities and funding of NOP, according to OTA.

To read OTA's draft outline for the 2007 Farm Bill, click here​.

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